The Law of Least Surprise

I wear many hats, but two of my favorites are my editing hat (really just a green-celluloid visor that protects my eyes from the glare of the lightbulb dangling overhead) and my programming hat (a rakish fedora with a feather on the side). I alternate between the two on any given day, but there’s one guiding principle that both hats share—the law of least surprise.

The law of least surprise was formulated by computer nerds who wisely realized that “a programmer should try to think of the behavior that will least surprise someone who uses the program, rather than the behavior that is natural from knowing the inner workings of the program.” For example, if I’m writing a document in a word processor, and I type “3rd” (meaning “third”), the “rd” should not magically be formatted as superscript. But that’s the default setting in Microsoft Word, which frequently violates the law of least surprise, often in very big ways.

One of the most egregious violations occurred with the introduction of the Document Map in Word 97. The feature didn’t work unless heading styles were applied to headings in the document text. If it couldn’t find any headings, it created them, automatically formatting short lines that looked as though they might be headings.

Another bad one was the universally hated “Clippy,” the animated paperclip also introduced in Word 97. (Is there a pattern here?) Clippy would pop up at the most inopportune times, “helpfully” saying things like “It looks as though you’re writing a grocery list. Do you need milk?” In 2007 Smithsonian magazine called Clippy “one of the worst software design blunders in the annals of computing.” In 2010 Time magazine listed it as one of the 50 worst inventions. Even at Microsoft, Clippy’s internal code name was “TFC,” which did not stand for “that friendly clip.” Nevertheless, I enjoy some of the creative spoofs that Clippy inspired.

The law of least surprise isn’t just for programmers, though. It also applies to editors, who should change an author’s text as little as possible while still ensuring clarity (and, in some situations, conformity to house style). I’ve had bad experiences with inept but well-meaning proofreaders who made changes because something I wrote didn’t follow the “rules” or because they had a “better” way to express something than I did, even though my way was perfectly clear. This reminds me of a story about Abraham Lincoln:

A Cabinet meeting was called to consider [the United States’] relations with England. . . . One after another of the Cabinet presented his views, and Mr. Seward read an elaborate diplomatic dispatch, which he had prepared.
Finally Mr. Lincoln read what he termed “a few brief remarks upon the subject,” and asked the opinions of his auditors. They unanimously agreed that our side of the question needed no more argument than was contained in the President’s “few brief remarks.”
Mr. Seward said he would be glad to adopt the remarks, and, giving them more of the phraseology usual in diplomatic circles, send them to Lord Palmerston, the British premier.
. . . The President, half wheeling in his seat, threw one leg over the chair-arm, and, holding the letter in his hand, said, “Seward, do you suppose Palmerston will understand our position from that letter, just as it is?”
“Certainly, Mr. President.”
“Do you suppose the London Times will?”
“Certainly.”
“Do you suppose the average Englishman of affairs will?”
“Certainly; it cannot be mistaken in England.”
“Do you suppose that a hackman out on his box (pointing to the street) will understand it?”
“Very readily, Mr. President.”
“Very well, Seward, I guess we’ll let her slide just as she is.”
And the letter did “slide,” and settled the whole business in a manner that was effective. (Alexander K. McClure, Yarns and Stories of Abraham Lincoln [Salt Lake City: Waking Lion Press, 2013], 160-61.)

When editors make changes not to ensure clarity but to meet some arbitrary aspect of their own sensibilities, they’re doing it wrong. As an editor, I try to keep that in mind. And as an author, I don’t like surprises.

New Programs from the Editorium

Wearing my programmer’s hat, I’ve been working hard all summer to create some new Microsoft Word add-ins to help with your work:

IndexLinker creates hyperlinks from index page numbers back to the text to which they refer. If you’re creating ebooks or PDFs with indexes, you need this program.

BookMaker automates typesetting and page layout in Microsoft Word. Stop fighting with page breaks, headers, and footers. Let BookMaker do the heavy lifting.

LyXConverter converts Word documents into LyX documents.

A Special Deal: Editor’s Toolkit Ultimate!

Editor’s ToolKit Ultimate combines three great products:

The three products work together to create a powerful editing package to take you through three separate stages of copyediting.

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